Explore the Score: Dvorak- Symphony no. 8


Dvorak 8 was the first score I ever went out and bought and subsequently tried to analyze. We had played the work in my youth orchestra under the guidance of James Smith, a truly great musician and orchestral trainer. I’d always been interested in conducting, but the transformation James had made in the orchestra working on this piece for his first concert was too compelling for me- I had seriously caught the bug.

Only a little more than a year later, it was Dvorak 8 which almost turned me off to conducting and orchestra playing for good, when I played it on my first concert with the Indiana University orchestra program. In spite of the fact that the IU band was the most talented group of musicians I’d ever sat in, the concert was dreadful, the rehearsals awful and the whole experience completely depressing. One got the feeling that the whole school thought of orchestra playing, orchestral music and conducting as a complete joke, an impression that only got stronger during my four years there, although that mindset that has now changed there for the better.

I’m still using my old score of the 8th, and it is interesting to look at my faded markings, especially in light of my recent essay on score marking. Although I really didn’t know what I was doing and had never had anyone explain it to me, I think I did okay- maybe we take this whole stick waving business too seriously. Seriously, I think the real lesson is in how much about study I was able to learn from having rehearsed the piece under a truly great conductor.


Antonin Dvorak

Antonin Dvorak

Dvorak’s Eighth Symphony, written over just less than a month in 1889, is a classic example of a piece of music in which a simple and direct exterior hides a very sophisticated and multi-layered interior.

It is a work that is often described as “sunny” as well as “songful,” “warm,” and “optimistic,” and, in many important ways, it is all of those things. However, it is also his most harmonically and structurally ambitious symphonic work, his most modern, and beneath its sunny exterior lie moments of great pathos and even grotesquerie.

Dvorak himself said that in this piece he wanted “to write a work different from my other symphonies, with individual ideas worked out in a new manner.” Dvorak’s intentions would have been clear to his contemporaries just from the title alone- Symphony no. 8 in G Major. No major composer since Haydn had published a symphony in G Major- perhaps because it was considered a key more appropriate for folk music and song than a symphony. As it turned out, Dvorak’s intent was to write a symphony of folk music and song, so for him G Major was the perfect choice.

The Eighth begins with a hint of darkness to come, with a long, lyrical and melancholy melody played by the cellos. His later Cello Concerto was final proof that no composer ever understood my instrument better than Dvorak, but in this symphony the cellos carry so much of the melodic weight that they take on the role of something like a narrator or a Greek chorus. At each key moment in the symphony, it is the cellos who tell us where we are. Interestingly, this is a role the cellos would reprise in the next G Major symphony by a major composer- Mahler’s Fourth.

These early bars are full of the ambiguity that will haunt the symphony- the title page tells us that it is a symphony in G Major, but this is music in G minor. The tempo marking says “Allegro con brio,” but, written in cut time, this opening tune could be in Andante. Is it a slow introduction? Is the entire symphony to be a voyage from dark to light?
The flute quickly provides some answers, with a simple, triadic melody that is very squarely in G major- the first of many tunes in the symphony that will be notable for their childlike directness. It could be a folk song, or, more specifically, a children’s song.

The first movement of this symphony is the most elaborate and complex symphonic movement Dvorak ever wrote, a huge span of musical architecture anchored to the three occurrences of the cello theme from the beginning- a melody that he never significantly develops or modulates. It ends in raucous good spirits and blazing sunshine.

The Adagio is very much a piece of Nachtmusik- the G major sunshine gives way to C minor austerity. Musicologist Michael Steinberg sees in the key and structure of the movement a clear homage to the slow movement of Beethoven’s Eroica, only in this work Dvorak actually begins in the wrong key- E flat Major- before moving to the “real” key of C minor a few bars in. Beethoven does the opposite. At the heart of the movement is a Maggiore episode built around another of the children’s songs that make up so much of the symphony’s soul. Dvorak’s orchestration in this movement is particularly vivid and evocative, and, much more sparse than in Dvorak’s earlier slow movements.

The scherzo is in G minor, and begins with a long, soulful melody which is built entirely of descending scales set in descending sequences- hardly the stuff of a naïve, upbeat symphony. The second theme is also made entirely of descending lines, only now Dvorak uses a chromatic scale, which only intensifies the sense of darkness in the music- it is a melodic gesture used since Bach to symbolize falling tears. The Trio couldn’t be a more dramatic contrast- this is the most childlike of all the children’s tunes in the symphony. What does it mean that Dvorak brackets it with the tears of the main Scherzo?

The finale, which begins with a bracing fanfare in the trumpets, is made up of a series of wild variations on another children’s tune initially stated, you guessed it, by the cellos. The theme’s first eight bars are a summing up of everything in the symphony so far- an ascending triad (the same notes as the flute theme in the first movement) and a descending sequence. After another raucous climax, the original version of the theme returns one last time for another series of variations, again led by the cellos. Now the music has turned deeply inward and profoundly bittersweet. Though staying firmly in major, this is Dvorak at his most heartbreaking- one gets the feeling that Dvorak is facing the prospect of letting go of something very dear to him in this music.

Perhaps there is a more personal reason for the use of all these melodies which so powerfully evoke childhood and naivety. Dvorak himself, only twelve years earlier, had been forced to bury three of his own children within in months of each other. It has even been suggested that the three notes of the G major triad which make up the main motive of the symphony are symbolic of Dvorak’s three children.  Like Mahler (who’s own G Major symphony was itself a meditation on the passing of a child- surely Dvorak’s symphony was a model for him), Dvorak’s associations with the music of childhood could only be conflicted. However, unlike Mahler, Dvorak was always determined to face the most painful loss with hope, whether in the Stabat Mater, the work in which he most directly faced the death of his children,  the Cello Concerto, in which he faced the death of the love of his life, Josefina,  or here, in the Eighth Symphony. Having said goodbye for the last time, the music storms back to life, and ends in the highest possible spirits.


 c. 2006 Kenneth Woods

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

Spread the word. Share this post!

About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at www.kennethwoods.net

All material in these pages is protected by copyright.

12 comments on “Explore the Score: Dvorak- Symphony no. 8”

  1. Zoltan

    I heard both the symphony and the Stabat Mater before knowing anything about the background of Dvorak’s life at the time. In the case of the symphony I never understood later: why is it that it’s looked upon as “only” gorgeous melodies, thus rendering it to “too approachable good tune music without real significance” to some. And while there’s a lot of joy, I found the 3rd movement more as a very sad story told to us. Coincidentally, I had my first live experience last Friday, where it was coupled with Shostakovich’s 1st Violin Concerto (with all the angst I had hoped for!).
    Ah, the Stabat Mater! I still don’t quite understand how someone as Dvorak, who’s been through so much, is able to write such a hopeful ending to this work: which is full of lamentations, and yet, in the end, there’s hope! It is so moving, I sometimes catch myself as wanting to listen to it, but can’t, because of the sheer emotional weight it brings.
    The Stabat Mater is in this regard similar for me to Shostakovich’s 4th or Mahler’s 6th. Yet I don’t have that problem with Rachmaninovs 2nd, perhaps, because he managed to make those gorgeous melodies both sorrowful sounding and hopeful (unlike M6, where you only have the andante as a “hopebringer”)? I’m not sure, probably not, but the effect the work has is still something else…

  2. Kenneth Woods

    Hi Zoltan

    Thanks so much for a wonderful and insightful comment. I’m so happy to know that you love the Stabat Mater- the piece is very special to me. In a saner world, I think the Stabat Mater would be one of those cultural touchstones that everyone, even people who’s main interests lie outside classical music, would know. After all, I can’t think of a musical work that deals more profoundly with such a central and painful question of life- what happens to the parent who must burry a child?
    It was not easy to sell an 80 minute choral work with almost no fast or loud music to the board of the OES 3 years ago, but they said yes, and it’s still one of the projects I’m most proud of there.
    How did Dvorak write the ending of it? I can only stand back in awe that he could, but, then again, there have always been those artists and thinkers whose personal tragedies led them to a more optimistic and hopefull attitude to life, whether Maya Angelou, Beethoven, Elie Weisel or Dvorak. Artists like Shostakovich and Mahler took a different approach, which was to chronical as honestly as possible the true price of human suffering. Both approaches are essential to a healthy world.
    Thanks for reading and for commenting


  3. Pingback: Kenneth Woods- a view from the podium » Archivio » Dvorak 8- Challenges for principal trumpet

  4. james

    thank you very much for these notes.
    i found them very insightful.
    this is obviously one of the greatest works in the repertoire, and it deserves more attention. You brought up some very valid and unique points.
    i am a high school violist and violinist and I had the luxury of playing this symphony under a great conductor as well.

    thank you.

  5. Pingback: first movement « sputnik scribbles

  6. david lockington

    Hi Ken

    I am Philip’s friend in Grand Rapids. I heard the Gale on your web site and it sounded terrific. I played in the KYO for a year or two and it brought back great memories. I am doing the 8th this week and I found your remarks really enjoyable. I don’t know how you keep up with a blog but thanks for doing so!

    All the best.

  7. Rachael Keplin

    Mr. Woods,

    I have just started a large project for a repetoire class and have decided to analyze Dvorak’s 8th Symphony. I was very drawn to doing the 7th at first, but since I have already had the pleasure of performing that I chose something new. Though I wish I could keep reading your insightful and engaging notes, the thoughts you did write have encouraged me to explire this piece more than ever in text, theory, and aural perspective. Thank you for posting these notes!

    Rachael Keplin

  8. Kenneth Woods

    Hi rachel

    How lovely to hear from you. The 7th is a great, great masterpiece, no doubt about it, but the 8th is an interesting piece because it’s sweet facade hides layers of deeper and darker meaning, especially when you understand more about Dvorak’s life and the losses he endured as a parent. Enjoy.

  9. Chip

    My Brass Band (Brass Band of the Tri-State) just debuted my transcription of the 4th mvt of this Dvorak Symphony in Columbus Ohio at the Ohio Brass Arts Festival on April 2, 2011. When transposed to F major, this piece is quite succussful for an all brass band. A great deal of fun!!!

  10. Pingback: Hanoi Grapevine » Blog Archive » KVT – A Dress Rehearsal for the States

  11. Ed Tattersall

    Have been listening to the last five Dvorak symphonies again. Some of the received opinions in older books are irritating, especially the denigration of the ‘New World’ Symphony and the suggestion that the more Brahmsian a work is (e.g. nos. 6 and 7) somehow the better. All five are wonderful, but no. 8 is the one I have always loved best. I was thinking about the way in which solemn and sad music in it keeps turning to rumbustious (and noisy!) sounds with an orchestral colour that in places reminds me of Tchaikowsky or even Shotakovitch. This contrast – within all the movements – is one of the things that gives the piece a special power. The suggested link with memories of dead children strikes me as really illuminating. I also realise how little of this composer’s work I really know, and I want to widen my knowledge. What are the ‘must knows’ apart from the symphonies, cello concerto, piano quintet and the two lovely serenades (and, evidently, the Stabat Mater)?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *